Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A bend in the road

Roads are straight or curved. Straight roads, at least in mountains, are urban roads. Town and city planners usually eliminate all but man-made topographies, so streets can be straight. Even in hilly San Francisco the streets are straight.

I suppose a straight street is a safe street: you can see what’s coming and, if it comes at you, get out of its way. But I don’t think that’s why they made the streets straight.

There’s probably a history to straight streets that I should know. In the absence of that knowledge, I suppose city streets reflect city buildings, which are rectilinear, cornered, perpendicular. Streets are straight and cornered because they accommodate the buildings: you can more easily line up boxes along a straight line than a curved one. Or maybe it's the other way around.

There is a certain order and efficiency to a line, a grid, a graph. Such an order reminds me of Foucault’s panopticon: a city official can stand at one end know what’s going on at the other.

Of course, not all cities have straight roads. Washington, DC, is famous for circles: but these are spoked with straight roads that fan outward. That structure, even more than a grid, suggests the panopticon. Some cities, like Kansas City, Mo, which I visited earlier this month, are built on grids and have winding boulevards, like rivers, coursing through them, as if to give the residents a break from predictability.

A curved street is both a rest for the eye and a stimulant. A curved road is rural, at least in the mountains, which require roads to be curvaceous (or that road builders use plenty of dynamite). Whether by accident or design a winding lane hides itself. If you are to know what’s along it you have to take the turn and find out. If the road winds, there is mystery around the bend.

As I tramp Asheville’s streets, snapping its landscape, I sense a pattern in what my eye is drawn to see: I often take pictures of roads that bend, leave the frame. I suppose it's a matter of taste: in my view, a straight road, if centered, is boringly symmetrical. On the other hand, even centered, a curved street lists to one side, leaves the page, gives the photograph a certain oomph, a little energy.

But it’s more than an aesthetic – or the aesthetic owes itself to something else – for uncertainty about what is around the bend draws us toward it, calls to us – our humanity is wired that way – to find out what is there. A photograph of a straight path holds no drama. On the other hand, a road with a curve to it has drama precisely because we cannot see where it goes. And we wonder. Where does it go?

Asheville has many curved roads (see especially "West Asheville Walk" in Asheville Walks). Montford Avenue, the main drag through my own neighborhood, curves beyond the park, snakes past Zilicoa and old Highland Hospital, then bends again into Klondyke. Pearson Drive, which parallels Montford, turns at Waneta, and turns again past Rosewood. I don’t think these turns were, from an engineering standpoint, necessary. It is almost as if the designers wanted something different. Perhaps curving roads seemed pastoral, like country lanes. Perhaps they seemed like interesting, literal diversions.

Perhaps a bend in the road invites exploration in ways that straight city streets do not. Straight streets suggest a known universe. Curved streets, like curve balls in a baseball game, present us with uncertainty. I like to think that the planners of my neighborhood laid the streets with an eye to uncertainty. I think it was poet Wendell Berry who said: "Every day do something that won't compute."

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